Friday, 7 October 2011

One of the first manifestos against colonialism.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born in Ireland, a land long submitted to British strength. His famous Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726. It became into a classic satirical narrative because of its irreverent wit and irony, its attacks on political and financial corruption, as well as abuses in science and authority, which continue to resonate in our own times. Despite his often professed dislike of his native country and of Catholicism, Swift turned into an Irish activist against British abuse. Perhaps a most significant piece of writing on this regard is the last chapter of the fourth Gulliver’s travel, which may be read as one of the first anti-colonialist manifestos.
In his fourth and last travel, Gulliver gets into an island inhabited by horses and Yahoos, a sort of human beings depicted as awful beasts. In contrast, the horses –which are called Houyhnhnms and rule the land– are quite civilized, honorable and reasonable. When Gulliver comes back to Britain is noticed that he is bound in duty as a subject of England to inform the authorities about his discovery, because whatever lands are discovered by a subject, belong to the Crown. But Gulliver denies doing so. His arguments go from factual reasons (Houyhnhnms would defeat the king's army by “terrible yerks”, i.e. kicks) to moral ones (conversely, Houyhnhnms should come to civilize Europe “by teaching us the first principles of honour, justice, truth, temperance, public spirit, fortitude, friendship…”). Another reason Gulliver provides is a sensible, logical and humanistic one: “Those countries” says Gulliver ironically, “do not appear to have a desire of being conquered, and enslaved, murdered or driven out by colonies.”
But the main reason he exposes to not enlarge his Majesty’s dominions by his discoveries has to do with his strong feelings of rejection to colonialism and its methods. Actually, in two or three paragraphs occupying no more than a page, Swift puts in Gulliver’s discourse what may be understood as a manifesto against British (and other European powers) abuse on far-off countries and people. The atrocities of the conquests are clearly shown with hard direct criticism. Robbing, plundering, murdering, destroying, torturing are the means to build a “modern colony” and –here, the irony again– “to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people.” Who really are the barbarous people, the author seems to shout. And, for him, it seems to be clear who they are.
This short piece of text includes a brief and sarcastic description of how a process of colonization was often carried out. According to Gulliver/Swift, it involved all kind of violence. As an example taken from the real history, at this point is also mentioned one “Ferdinando Cortez”, in clear allusion to Hernando Cortés, who conquered Mexico in less than two years (1519-21): “Ships are sent with the first opportunity, the natives driven out or destroyed, their princes tortured to discover their gold.”
In 1542, the Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas had already written what is considered the first pronouncement against colonialism and its methodology during modern times (the process Christopher Columbus started in 1492) in his The Destruction of the Indias.  Almost two hundred years later, by means of satire, irony and humour, Swift achieved a piece of literature that is, to a certain extent, a historical one as well. Despite of being a British subject, he took side against brutality and cruelty showed by his own colonialist nation and produced what may be regarded as another manifesto against colonialism.

Blue worm

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